JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A federal judge on Monday complained that a protracted battle over three states’ claim to water flowing from a reservoir near Atlanta has been taking place in "never-never land."
U.S. District Judge Paul Manguson is attempting to unravel 19 years of litigation between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over water from Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s water supply. Florida and Alabama want to increase the amount of water released from Lanier to benefit downstream power plants, farms and other businesses in their states.
Manguson, who flew in from Minnesota to hear the case, did not say when he would rule on the legality of water supply allocations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But he criticized the corps for its part in the delays.
"The corps has been sitting on this," Manguson said near the end of four-hour hearing after being told that an environmental impact study would take another three years.
"It is a situation that cannot be permitted to function in this never-never land that it is in," he told Ruth Ann Storey, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing the corps.
Storey told the judge there was no action in the case for almost a dozen years because the states were trying to work out an agreement on their own.
The dispute centers on how much water the Army Corps of Engineers holds back in federal reservoirs near the head of the Chattahoochee and Flint river basins in North Georgia. The rivers flow south into Florida and Alabama, where they form to become the Apalachicola River.
The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water, while Florida and Alabama depend on healthy flows downstream for commercial fisheries, farms, industrial users and municipalities. The corps also is required to release adequate flows to ensure habitats for species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Parker Thomson, an attorney representing Florida, argued that the corps, in supplying an increasing amount of water to Atlanta, was violating rules that require the corps to get approval from Congress.
"There has been a major operational change. There has been no consent from Congress," he argued.
Patricia Barmeyer, representing Georgia, urged Manguson not to be influenced by an appeals court ruling in favor of Florida and Alabama.
"We urge you to resist the calls from Alabama and Florida that there is nothing for you to do in this case," she said.
Matt Lembke, an attorney representing Alabama, argued the Corps of Engineers had failed to comply with the Water Supply Act.
Many of the arguments centered on actions when the dam was being planned in 1946. Florida and Alabama argued the dam was built for hydroelectric power, flood control and navigation, while Georgia argued the reservoir was built as a water supply for the Atlanta area.
Many of the arguments were based on technical data and laws in effect when the dam was built.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said Monday that he expects the judge’s ruling to come down somewhere in the middle, but it is unlikely this will be the last round of appeals.
"It’s unfortunate our neighboring states would want to use water supply as a way to limit the growth of a very successful city and state," Perdue said.
Seven lawsuits on the water issue have been consolidated by a federal panel. The case has been going on for almost two decades.